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――The fall of the walled city of Guaral, that was the next move in Abel’s scheme.
As his brain digested the contents of that bold proclamation, Subaru instantly reached a conclusion.
That it was an absurd plan.
Subaru: [Though imperfect, a fortified city… It’s surrounded by walls on all sides, plus entries and exits through the gates are being monitored constantly. It’s not a place where you can just say something like “surrender” so casually.]
Abel: [Ho, you speak as though you have seen it… Oh right, you have. As nothing particularly useful has been heard coming from your mouth, I had nearly forgotten.]
Subaru: [That sharp wit is very nice. But, that sharpness is only usable against opponents sitting down for discussions like this. It won’t work against armed opponents.]
In the middle of the meeting place, encircling the fire, Subaru and Abel glared at each other.
Abel let no emotion behind the oni mask peek through, but that just made it all the more impossible for Subaru to guess what was going through his head, leaving Subaru both annoyed and confused.
Right now, the legitimate concern Subaru harbored, there was no way Abel would not have likewise realized it.
And in spite of that, he had proposed something like the fall of the fortified city――,
Rem: […You intend to use a byway to invade the city, is that what you are saying?]
While Subaru was holding his breath, a quiet voice murmured those words beside him; it was Rem’s.
Rem was sitting with her legs folded to one side, her light-blue eyes fixed intently on Abel. It was less of a glare, and more like her gaze was peering into him.
Receiving that look, “That goes without saying”, Abel shrugged.
Abel: [As Natsuki Subaru said, the inspections imposed at the main gates of the city are the first obstacle. It is imperative we find a way to evade them to get into the city.]
Rem: [Even supposing we got in, it looked like there was a large number of Imperial Soldiers within the city. Even ignoring the inspection, I think there would be too many enemies.]
To Abel who was sorting the obstacles for the fall of Guaral, Rem gave a well-reasoned objection. Abel snorted at that attitude, but on the other hand Subaru’s bewilderment intensified.
The source of which was, of course, the figure of Rem directly arguing with Abel.
Concerning the content of her argument, Rem’s position could be said to be on the same side as Subaru, opposing an assault on Guaral.
However, her holding that viewpoint was really too fitting. ――As though during her short time sojourning in Guaral, she had completely made sure of that point.
Abel: [――Natsuki Subaru, what do you know of the difference between offensive and defensive military force in regards to battle?]
Subaru: [Ah? The difference between offensive and defensive military force, you say… Like, the Law of Threefold Attack?]
Abel: [The Law of Threefold Attack… Indeed, that is a perfectly fitting phrase.]
When asked, Subaru reflexively answered, and Abel nodded as if impressed.
The Law of Threefold Attack, was a theory of combat regarding military force, which stated that the attacking side should have three times the strength of the defending side.
This was due to the difference in the sense of objectives between offense and defense. The offensive side must defeat their opponents, whereas the defensive side could either defeat their opponents, repel them, or just avoid the attack, which was a significant advantage.
For example, in this instance, to procure Guaral Abel would have to command the Shudraqians to occupy the city, but the Imperial Soldiers and guards could withdraw from the attack and barricade themselves in the city to achieve their aim.
To cover for the difference for it to be possible to achieve the objectives, the idea was that such an amount of troops were needed, but――,
Subaru: [Three times the force of the city, there’s no way we could get something like that together. Mizelda-san, how many people are in this village, give-or-take?]
Mizelda: [Altogether, eighty-two people. Including Abel and that man… Flop, it’s at least a hundred.]
Subaru: [I’m not sure how you’re counting men with nice faces, but it’s merely a hundred. Though I’d roughly estimate there were more than three times that force in the city.]
Setting aside Mizelda’s method of calculation, Subaru estimated Guaral’s military strength to be in that ballpark.
The scale of the city probably did not reach 10,000 people in size, but there should be a suitable number of soldiers protecting the city’s law and order to match. And on top of that, the Imperial Soldiers whose camp had been torched would join them.
――Those Imperial soldiers, including Todd.
Abel: [At the very least, it seems you possess some fundamental knowledge in that head of yours. Yet, the reason you held your tongue appears to be some other fear besides concern about the power differential.]
Subaru: […It’s true that there’s something I fear, but it’s also true that the power differential is dangerous.]
Subaru clicked his tongue, and tasted the discomfort of having his inner feelings correctly guessed.
In truth, when Subaru had heard of the plan to capture Guaral, the first obstacle that came to mind was Todd. Even just the thought of facing him again was enough to make his guts squirm.
Anyway, if they thought in accordance with The Law of Threefold Attack, it was not worth discussing.
Subaru: [As for a means to overcome the difference in strength, I can’t think of anything outside of a mighty warrior joining us or the enemy commander being fatally incompetent.]
Abel: [Unfortunately, I do not believe we can anticipate either of those. With the Shudraq’s abilities, we could scatter the masses of troops, but even if they used their numbers to surround us we would be defeated. Furthermore, I hear the enemy commanding officer is Zikr Osman. He is a solid and boring strategist, but he has no weak point.]
Subaru: [Zikr… I’ve heard that name.]
He must have heard that name from Todd, before their relationship had deteriorated.
The Imperial encampment had already been reduced to ashes, but he recalled the person in command of that military operation to be called Zikr.
However, since the camp had been burned, he had thought that person had been defeated as well.
Abel: [Those at the encampment were common soldiers. From the beginning, in order to conceal the primary objective, they were bestowed with minimal intelligence… Against a small tribe, a Second General would not proceed to the front lines.]
Subaru: [So you’re saying the commanding officer remained in the city from the outset?]
Abel: [In truth, by doing nothing he ought to have achieved an adequate result. That plan went awry on my command… Ahh, and due to your presence, Natsuki Subaru.]
Maliciously, Abel tried to force Subaru to face the responsibility he was averting his eyes from.
At that, Subaru ground his teeth and pressed his hand to his mouth.
At any rate, there was a high probability that Second General Zikr was stationed at Guaral.
The Empire’s upper ranks were said to be First General, Second General, Third General and so on, so he could understand that a rank second from the top meant a pretty powerful person.
Subaru: [So what are you trying to say? On top of our inferior military strength, the enemy commander is a big shot counted among the elite. Furthermore, since we poked the beehive, they’ll also be on guard, right?]
Abel: [Precisely. Can you appreciate the weight of your responsibility?]
Subaru: [That’s not what I’m saying!]
Abel condemned Subaru for his thoughtlessness, but the problem lay elsewhere.
It was Abel’s stance of still refusing to give up the fight, even with an abysmal chance of success. Subaru resolutely maintained that it was pointless to even try.
In the first place――,
Subaru: [I am vehemently against fighting itself. That should’ve been very clear when I left here. I…I just want to go home with Rem.]
Abel: [Yet, that has already proved unfeasible. You think the Imperial Soldiers in Guaral are your only enemy? Are you convinced another village or town would be safe?]
Abel: [No matter where you go, your peace can no longer be secured. I intended to grant you the time to fully realize it, and let it seep into your blood. Or, is the poison still insufficient?]
Abel’s mocking gaze was starting to peck at Subaru’s feeble spirit.
Besides, as he felt pain like he was enduring great hardship, Subaru let out a long sigh; though annoying, he could not deny the truth of Abel’s words.
The suffering he had gone through in the walled city had created a mental barrier inside Subaru.
From now on, even if he attempted to take Rem and flee abroad, even if he went somewhere other than Guaral, the same vigilance and fear would not fade.
Subaru’s pride had been lost in exchange for five deaths.
Subaru: [――If that’s the case, what if I sell you out to the enemy?]
His way out blocked, and having been abused for thoughtlessness, Subaru asked the question, his face looking twisted.
In an instant, the words Subaru had uttered turned the air of the meeting room tense. At the edge of his vision, he could clearly see Rem next to him, her eyes wide.
However, the one he had threatened to sell out, Abel, gave a small laugh.
Abel: [Hmm. At last, your head appears to be beginning to function normally. And yet…]
Mizelda: [That’s not up for discussion, Subaru.]
In the blink of an eye, Mizelda drew her dagger and pressed the edge to Subaru’s neck.
Subaru gasped at her quick feat, and looked up at the face of the tall tribal chief who had moved instantaneously. Mizelda’s eyes conveyed a stubborn conviction on her beautiful face, they were the eyes of a ruthless huntress.
Mizelda: [We’ve already decided to fight together with Abel. That’s the result of the Lifeblood Ritual, if it’s the desire of the one we’ve recognized as a compatriot, there’s nothing for it.]
Subaru: […I get that for me, who borrowed your strength to bring back Rem, this is audacious to say. Honestly, are you all okay with that?]
Mizelda seemed resolute, but Subaru’s query jumped over her.
As chieftain, Mizelda must personify the way Shudraqians ought to be, and could not be persuaded. Even so, the other Shudraqians could have separate opinions.
The different opinions of those present, Taritta, Kuna, and Holly.
Subaru: [Just a moment ago, this guy also said as much. The gap in military strength is clear, and the opponent’s a greatly experienced courageous general. From the start, you can see you don’t stand a chance fighting him…]
Holly: [Maybe, Subaru’s got the wrong idea~]
Subaru: [The wrong idea…?]
The first one to answer the question as Subaru searched for other opinions was surprisingly Holly.
At the edge of the meeting place, Holly, who had been listening to the conversation as she gnawed on some dried meat, fixed her eyes on Subaru, his movement prevented.
Holly: [If you’re talking about winning or losing, drawing back from here is also our loss~. If we can’t fight for our compatriot, our spirit will be stained~]
Subaru: [A stain on your spirit, you say… Something like pride, or facing your ancestors, that kind of thing?]
Holly: [Yeah yeah, you got it, Subaru~]
With a smile, Holly affirmed Subaru’s words.
But rather than that being evidence of mutual understanding, it was proof that they could not understand each other.
Subaru also understood that there were such points of view.
Things like pride and family honor, so to speak, were invisible vindications that did not directly contribute to one’s physical body ―― Thinking those were a matter of grave concern, certainly there existed attitudes that valued such things above all else.
Yet, as far as that went, it was a way of thinking that could not coexist with Subaru’s belief that there was nothing more important than life.
Subaru: [Kuna! Taritta-san! You two share the same opinion!?]
Kuna: […I don’t really think about it as deeply as Holly or the chief.]
Taritta: [――. I will abide by my older sister’s decision. Since that is my wish.]
Subaru: [I, see…]
He had fished for information from the other two as well, but Subaru was not able to get his desired response.
He had thought perhaps Kuna would, herself being a bit out of step with the other Shudraqians, but it seemed Subaru’s hope was misplaced. Taritta’s complete obedience to Mizelda went without saying.
As it was, Subaru was without allies, with a dagger against his neck, and it appeared the deadlock would drag on, but――,
Rem: […Mizelda-san, please withdraw your weapon. That person has no intention to hand Abel over to the enemy.]
The one requesting Mizelda pull back her dagger was none other than Rem herself.
Meeting her gaze, Mizelda narrowed those eyes of hers.
Mizelda: [Are you giving me an order, Rem? You haven’t taken the Lifeblood Ritual. I permitted you into the village on Subaru’s request, but don’t think that means you can backtalk me.]
Rem: [So, that’s all the more reason you should pull back your weapon. That person undertook the ritual… the Lifeblood Ritual as you call it, and was welcomed as a compatriot. To wound him would not be a good thing.]
Mizelda had tried to overpower Rem with her strengthened insight, but her undaunted retort left her at a loss for words. In the end, she swiftly returned her dagger to its sheath on her waist.
And like that Subaru was released, and he stared intently at Rem.
Mizelda: [What you said just now is correct. But, if Abel and Subaru’s opinions are divided again, I will side with Abel. Don’t forget it.]
Rem: [Is it because that person’s eyes are that of a heinous villain with fitting body odor?]
Mizelda: [A bit of sharpness in the eyes has charm too. But I have a fondness for beautiful faces.]
The touch-and-go situation had calmed down, but the ending exchange was a weak conversation.
In any case, Subaru was freed from the situation of nearly having his throat cut, and he gently rubbed the place where the knife’s edge had been pressed to. And then he looked intently at Rem.
Rem: [――. What is it?]
Subaru: […Nothing, I’m just lost as to whether I should respond to the fact you stood up for me or to the fact you disparaged my face.]
Rem: [I said nothing of your face. I spoke of your eyes. Then your body odor. My nose is wrinkling. Please sit further away.]
Subaru: [This again…!?]
Met with Rem’s glacial attitude, Subaru was hurt by the distance she made him sit away.
Yet inside his heart more complicated confusion plagued Subaru. In reality, why had she spoken up in defense of Subaru? He did not understand her true motive.
Nevertheless, maybe she disliked turning a blind eye to something illogical, or maybe it was something else. Maybe thinking that was Subaru’s bias?
After all, she had not unpacked at the inn in Guaral, so――.
Abel: [Our conversation was interrupted. However, even supposing you were able to evade the Shudraqians’ eyes, the idea of selling me over to the enemy is futile.]
Subaru: […Good job getting us back on track. While we’re at it, I’ll ask. Why’s that?]
Abel: [You also spent time in the city, albeit briefly. That being the case, did news of how the current Imperial Capital is being governed not reach your ears?]
Subaru: [The Imperial Capital you say… Ah! Right, that’s right! You’re…]
In sudden understanding, Subaru stood up on the spot without thinking. Then, as he focused on his visible surroundings he called out “Flop-san!”
Not having kept up with the change of affairs, the astonished Flop turned around with a “Yeah?”
Flop: [Wha-wha-wha-what is it Mister? Honestly, I’m feeling extremely confused and bewildered right now, I’m becoming a mess! I’m not following this conversation in the slightest, all I know is it feels like we’re getting to the climax of the issue!]
Subaru: [Sorry for leaving you out of the loop, but confirm something for me. In Guaral you talked about the official notice from the Imperial Capital… or rather, about the Emperor’s proclamation.]
Flop: [The Emperor’s proclamation… You mean the trouble in the Imperial Capital?]
Flop snapped his fingers, and Subaru nodded at his understanding.
Immediately after, the intense fight with Todd, having been repeated six-fold, had been severely burned into his brain, but he had also exchanged such talk with Flop in Guaral.
Reflecting on the matter in question, Flop smoothed down his own long hair,
Flop: [Our Empire has smouldering embers, and in the Capital there’s some kind of disturbance happening. The current Emperor has been reigning for a long time, and with no signs of civil war, imperial citizens have been enjoying peaceful days. But then this happened.]
Subaru: [Talk of trouble in the Capital has spread outside, and you said the Emperor himself had set out to resolve it, right? It was a kind of unusual announcement but…]
Flop: [Right. Actually, this is the first time since the current Emperor took the Throne. Nonetheless, he has an excellent track record managing the Empire so far. So I’m not worried! Viva Vollachia!]
Raising both hands, Flop unconsciously gouged Subaru’s old wound.
Those were the words extolling the Empire that he had heard so often in the Imperial encampment, but now Subaru did not have the presence of mind to innocently go along with it.
In any case, the problem was not the praise, but the movement of the Emperor that was spoken of just before.
That the Emperor was directly starting to move in order to suppress trouble in the Capital was an unprecedented situation. Not to mention, in the event that the Emperor were to do something like issuing a command before the public――,
Subaru: [The you that’s here now, who are you and what kind of position are you in? Can you prove you aren’t some crazy nutcase with a screw loose?]
Abel: [Proof you say? Where is the need for that?]
Sitting with his knee raised, Abel snorted at Subaru’s skepticism. At the same time, he put his hand on his chest and, like he was trying to flaunt his own existence, spoke,
Abel: [Never mind the thoughtless ones who have turned on me. Seeing as you have reached a point of no return, if you were to still treat me as an insolent person who speaks nonsense, how do you explain the situation you have found yourself in?]
Abel: [Cease latching onto facile ideas that cannot fool even yourself, merely to obtain peace of heart. If you exclude the possibilities that do not align together at the precise time, what is left is nothing but the truth.]
Abel’s statement was harsh, but Subaru bitterly understood the logic behind it.
The oni-masked man in front of him was a fake being disguised as an Emperor and Subaru and also the People of Shudraq were being deceived by his falsehoods. That kind of development would lead to doom beyond saving and above that, was hard to believe.
In reality, Abel had utilised the Shudraqians’ strength and the information obtained from Subaru to fight and win against the Imperial army. That real occurrence was something that could not be explained away by a habitual liar.
Subaru: [Then, what about the Imperial Capital stuff? If it’s said that the Emperor directly took command, there’s no way the Emperor wouldn’t come out in front of people.]
Abel: [I suppose they would then. A fake remarkably similar to myself… To halt mentions of the Emperor’s absence, an exceptionally well-made double is used. ――Chisha Gold.]
It was a name he had not heard before, but they were Abel’s――No, they were the Emperor’s body double.
In a land where the imperialistic “might makes right” ideology inhabited, it was easy to imagine that in preparation for assassinations, the Emperor would arrange for a body double.
However, having said body double be used by the enemy to usurp the seat of the Emperor was quite the misplacement of priorities.
Abel: [Silence, I am aware.]
Subaru: [Right, thanks to you, we’re in quite a mess. If only the Empire was at peace…]
The only problem Subaru needed to have was the salty interactions from the amnesiac Rem.
To reunite with Emilia and the others, a journey to struggle and escape the Vollachian Empire was to unfold. That was all it had to be. But now, due to some fate, they were in this mess.
Flop: [Um, um, ah, y’know, Mister.]
The one who called out to the sour-faced Subaru was Flop.
Wrinkling the space between his eyebrows of his graceful face, he tilted his head at a rather steep angle and,
Flop: [I’ve been thinking about it ever since I heard it before, but what you’re talking about with Mr. Chief is a bit mysterious, isn’t it? To be honest, I’m still shocked because of your joke about causing the fall of Guaral but…]
Subaru: [A joke… No, don’t mind that. Umm, Flop-san, I’ve been meaning to explain but.]
Flop: [Yes, please explain, if you could! If not, I have no choice but to agree to somewhat accept what I hear without question.]
Saying that, Flop whipped his finger to Abel and poked it out towards him.
Flop: [I have to agree to the absurd idea that Mr Chief over there is the Emperor himself!]
Flop: [Hohoho? I’m conflicted if you stay silent there, Mister. Thankfully, I have a reputation for jumping to conclusions. That’s why I have the flexibility to change and withdraw my opinion, you know…]
Abel: [――You, you have done something akin to drawing improperness into art.]
If they were trying to hide it, it was a conversation lacking the consideration to do so.
That was why, sitting next to Subaru, Flop was able to naturally reach the correct conclusion. And, being able to do so by himself, Abel was showing displeasure at that.
Putting disdain into his gaze, the one he insulted with “improper” was Subaru. He was pointing out how Subaru had not made any of the situation clear to Flop, having brought him into the Shudraqian settlement.
However, accepting Abel’s disdain was difficult for Subaru.
Subaru: [I’m improper? Like you could say that! First off, even I know that that’s not something you can say out loud all willy-nilly.]
Abel: [Then, finish your ascertainment before bringing them here. It seems you still lack an understanding of the current situation. While being chased by enemies in Guaral, the thinking time provided should have been more than enough.]
Abel: [Putting something more important than yourself by your side, why did you give in to your thoughts. If you had no intention to line them beside yourself, bringing them back was a mistake from the start.]
Something more important than yourself. Being told that, Subaru thought about Rem beside him.
The words that followed that also hurt Subaru like his flesh being cut open. ――What Abel was trying to say was clear as day. He was speaking on how Subaru had left himself exposed at a time he should have been protecting Rem.
Of course, Subaru had no recollection of putting his guard down or giving in at all.
However, in the eyes of Abel, whose thought process spun far deeper and farther than Subaru could, Subaru’s own was severely lacking. It was never enough, and never worth considering.
Do not bring back someone who could not be trusted with the details. That was how he was being criticised.
Subaru thought to not involve Flop and Medium in things. Abel exposed Subaru’s naive thought and coldly discarded it, saying that it was idiotic and stupid.
Flop: [――Mr. Chief! Could I interrupt this discussion for a moment?]
Subaru was at a loss for words; but in his place, Flop energetically raised his hand.
Noisily advancing forward, he dropped into a cross-legged position with a thud and faced Abel’s oni mask head on.
Flop: [Or, perhaps you are not the Chief? How should I address you?]
Abel: [As of now I bear no title. I have taken the name of Abel, but you may call me what you like.]
Flop: [Is that so! Then, I will keep calling you Mr. Chief, because it feels right. The lady soldiers over there don’t mind right?]
Mizelda: [Ahh, you’re a sexy man. I’ll allow anything.]
Putting aside the almost customary interaction between the sisters, Flop laughed with a “My thanks!”. As he did so, he strongly slapped his knees with his hands and,
Flop: [I’m scared because you didn’t deny it for the longest time, but I want to talk about what you said before the previous thing you said. Mr. Chief, you wanted to ask about hidden routes into the city…?]
Abel: [Yes, I did. Any ideas, merchant?]
Flop: [I do! Is how it seemed I was going to answer, but apologies. If that’s going to be used to attack Guaral then I cannot answer.]
Putting a palm forward, Flop stated so with a cheerful expression.
Listening by his side, Subaru widened his eyes at Flop’s plain and resolute words. Even Abel had narrowed his eyes an inch from behind his oni mask.
That was how much seriousness Flop had put into his words, even if it did not show in his tone.
Flop’s statement was rather wild and made him stand out, but that was not because he was stupid.
He had also come to the conclusion that the true identity of the man in front of him, of Abel, was that of someone of high class and esteem. He had not been told he was right or wrong, so he figured his conjecture was close to the truth.
Meaning, he had, against the presumed Emperor, answered with a big “NO”.
Abel: [… Do you comprehend the meaning of what you have said?]
Flop: [You are nothing but a Chief, right Mr. Chief? Of course I do. If swords were to cross, I will reject that. I want to avoid causing harm to someone with the knowledge I hold.]
Abel: [That is a fairytale. In reality, something like malice will attack you without considering your personal history. You would raise your fist against all of that and request for them to withdraw?]
Flop: [If need be!]
Abel: [Even if you do, your efforts will bear no fruit. ――This is the land of wolves.]
A ghastly, freezing aura emanating from Abel’s body pierced through the air as he stated that.
The dreadful feeling of oppression from that was not because of their difference in strength. It manifested from the difference of their presences. Even Rem and the People of Shudraq, who would overwhelm Abel if they were to fight, held their breath and froze up.
Of course, Subaru was intimidated too, to the point his breathing had become irregular. Flop was not excluded from this feeling too.
However, while Flop was hit by the Emperor’s dreadful aura――,
Flop: [Even in a land of wolves, sheep also live. If wolves were to come bite my buttocks, I would ride my ox cart and run away with my sister. I’ve repeated that over and over til this day, Mr. Chief.]
Even if his cheeks were frozen, Flop’s smile would not disappear. That was his protest.
Hearing that, the demonic aura emanating from Abel suddenly defused. The oppressive air that had swept over the meeting area suddenly disappearing, Subaru got back the ability to breathe freely.
Nevertheless, even if he had obtained some leeway to take a breath, Subaru’s heart was in no shape to return to normal.
Subaru: [Ahh, Flop-san…]
Subaru called over to Flop with a raspy voice. The smile Flop showed to Subaru as the latter glanced over to him was bright.
It was close to a wry smile, but the side profile of Flop showed no sign of regret. However, even if he were to hold no regrets, for Subaru, who had brought him here in the first place, his regret would only grow exponentially.
For Flop had directly opposed the Vollachian Emperor.
Using that reason to incur Abel’s displeasure, Abel could do anything to Flop as he held command of the people of Shudraq.
However, contrary to Subaru’s worries――,
Abel: [――. Opposing my lazy argument, I can see your belief does not waver. A troublesome one you are, are you not, merchant?]
Flop: [Is that right? Even so, I acknowledge that my appearance is favourable to people you know!]
Mizelda: [I agree.]
Pocketing his aura, Abel did not point his spear of anger towards Flop.
Flop reacted to that in a way that made it unclear if he realised how dangerous of a tightrope he was walking on. No comment on Mizelda’s remark.
Abel: [I shall withdraw my gratitude from before, Natsuki Subaru.]
Subaru, unable to restore a sense of peace in his heart from before, was spoken to by Abel.
From behind his oni mask, the man with a sharp gaze nodded towards the stubborn Flop and,
Abel: [Your self-awareness is lacking but, if you were planning to bring someone, you should have brought someone more aligned to my interests. That way, things would be done without future complications.]
Subaru: […If it were someone like that, I doubt they’d have been kind to us in the first place.]
Abel: [Hm, I suppose that judgement is correct. How aggravating.]
If the earlier gratitude had been given for bringing Flop along, then the obstinance Flop had shown certainly made Abel want to retract the commendation.
No way, Flop was snapping at the Emperor’s authority directly―― No, he should say he was eluding it like a willow. Subaru had not thought there were people who would take such a stance.
Not to mention, it had also been unexpected that Abel would tolerate such an attitude from Flop.
Rem: [I expected Abel-san to be more obstinate.]
Subaru: [Hold on, Rem!?]
Rem’s brief comment seemed to reflect Subaru’s heart, and his eyes widened involuntarily.
In truth he also found that surprising, but he had not spoken because he thought there was nothing to be gained by saying it. It had come from Rem, and Abel’s oni mask turned toward her.
The oni and the oni mask faced one another, and for a moment the space between both of them yielded silence.
Abel: [――People with convictions are worrisome. Strong roots spread, and build up strength in the trunk.]
Rem: […What, does that mean?]
Abel: [You cannot tell? No matter, it is a trifle.]
Rem knit her brow, hearing Abel’s quiet and somewhat uncharacteristic response. Displaying some disappointment towards Rem’s reply, Abel loosely shook his head.
No one knew the reason for his disappointment. Subaru however, could roughly guess as to what it was.
Subaru: [… Were you alluding to something?]
Abel: [Hoh, that was unexpected. You do not look like the type of person to have received an education.]
Subaru: [I figured it was something of the sort. You sounded like you were quoting someone else.]
Hearing Abel unexpectedly talk like a normal person was surprising.
However, the person in question, Abel, heeded no mind in having his true thoughts revealed and answered shortly with an “I see.”
Abel: [As for your question from before, to say it was unexpected of me, you have quite the impression of me, do you not? First off, what did you expect me to do?]
Rem: […I thought for sure you would at least torture them for information.]
Questioned by Abel, the impression that Rem left with her answer was that of being too honest.
Saying that however, it was not an option that Subaru had not considered as well. If Abel wanted to make Flop obey to his will, it would be unsurprising if he ordered the Shudraqians to torture or perform other similar things to him.
Except, Abel shrugged his shoulders at those words and replied saying “It is useless.”
Abel: [Certainly, there are times when pain is the best negotiation tactic. However, the veracity of the information extracted from that method is extremely low. Humans will lie without hesitation to free themselves from the pain before them.]
Abel: [And were you in such a scenario, your eyes tell me you would shield them with your life.]
That was how Abel assessed Rem, who was motionlessly directing her stare at him.
Looking at Rem’s side profile, her jaw was clenched shut and her pretty features were on the verge of being wiped away by a look of grim resolve. Her side profile made clear that Abel’s brief assessment was true.
Abel: [I will not risk a foolish action that may reduce my troops in exchange for information low in accuracy. ――Therefore, I will negotiate.]
Abel: [Merchant, I will buy any knowledge you possess. Let us negotiate for that.]
Abel said, while lowering his raised knee and plunking down into a cross-legged position. Hearing that, Flop widened his eyes and faced Abel with a smile on his face.
Flop: [When I hear the word negotiation, as a merchant, I can’t help but get excited. However! Before we start negotiating, let me get one thing straight. I’m very stubborn. Even if my head were to be split and smashed open, I won’t comply with anything I can’t agree on.]
Such was his declaration.
Subaru: [Even if your head were to be split open, that’s not funny at all… It’s not funny at all, Flop-san.]
Recalling Flop’s caustic words that kicked off the negotiation battle just before, Subaru made a bitter face.
Flop did not do it purposely, but having seen his head be split and smashed open multiple times in reality, his words had the impact of a surprise attack on Subaru.
Narrowing his eyes, Subaru looked over at the meeting area from a hill slightly away.
Even now, in the meeting area, Abel and Flop’s negotiations, or “business talks”, were underway.
Abel wanted a foothold, required for the conquest of Guaral. Flop had the knowledge needed for that task, yet was not revealing it. That was the situation inside at the moment.
The reason Subaru had left the meeting area was because it was ordered that anyone unneeded for the negotiations was to be excluded. Basically, he was ordered out by Abel.
And, Subaru himself could not come up with a reason for him to stay at that place.
Subaru: [Using secret paths to enter the city, a blitzkrieg attack to go straight for the enemy general’s throat.]
Kicked out of the meeting, Subaru savoured the jungle-smelling wind as he recollected his memories.
From what he had heard, the plan Abel had outlined was something like that.
Although simple, it was difficult to come up with any other plan that would overcome the difference in manpower. If there was anything to change or add, it would be to attract attention in the city with a diversion, or perform little tricks to reduce the enemy general’s guards.
As for any problems with the plan――,
Subaru: [Simple plans are easily anticipated. At least I think so… Especially if Todd is against us.]
If there were no other methods of attack, then of course, the opponent would also take precautions against it.
Therefore, a plan that the enemy was already taking precautions against was, in baseball terms, something like throwing a straight ball right down the middle. From the perspective of the awaiting enemy, it would be a mouth-watering, easy ball to bat.
For Todd to miss this swing, Subaru could not fathom the idea of that happening.
Subaru: [Or am I being too paranoid? In the extreme case Todd was… If the average soldier is like Todd, then there’s no chance of winning.]
He did not know. There were far too many unknowns. But, he did not want that to be true.
He did not want to think of a scenario in which enemies like Todd existed, other than Todd. His affinity with Return by Death being the worst had been proven by pain, having piled up the most deaths in the shortest amount of time.
To think that that was the norm for the Vollachian Empire was――,
???: [――The negotiations seem to be dragging on.]
Subaru had at some point covered his face with his hands and shut his vision off from the world.
While Subaru was staring into the black void, the voice of a girl he had gotten used to hearing reached his eardrums. He had gotten used to hearing it, but it was a voice he wanted to always continue listening to.
However, that was only when Subaru’s heart and feelings were at peace.
Lowering the hands covering his face, Subaru nervously opened his eyelids. Resting on her cane, Rem stood quietly on the gentle slope of the hill. Her gaze pierced through Subaru, causing him to go rigid.
Right now, being able to stand face-to-face with Rem like this made his heart throb.
During the days spent coming back to the People of Shudraq’s settlement, Subaru had focused his anger on Abel, because his actions were equivalent to setting them up in a trap.
In doing so, it could be said he was avoiding talking with Rem. In reality, that was not wrong. He was scared of conversing with her and finding out about her true intentions.
That was why, he averted his eyes from the things he did not like and attempted a makeshift solution.
Nevertheless, there was a limit on how much he could run from the things he did not like.
There was a limit, and henceforth――,
Right now, he had no choice but to face himself against her eyes filled with seriousness.
Rem: [Abel-san seems to be adding various conditions and such, but Flop-san doesn’t seem to be budging at all.]
Subaru: […Yeah, he’s a good person. He doesn’t want to help by providing knowledge that could get someone hurt. Being surrounded by the Shudraqians, he has some serious courage to be able to say that.]
Subaru had overseen the progress of the negotiations for a while but Flop’s stubbornness was exactly as he proclaimed.
The focal point of the discussion was as expected, the casualties in the City of Guaral. People and material things――Flop had made clear that he would not compromise on both those things.
Abel promised to minimise the human casualties as much as possible, but that was not enough to be the deciding factor.
Like parallel lines, they could not meet and reach an agreement.
Towards Flop’s stubborn attitude, Subaru also felt relief.
Shunning war, he rebutted Abel head on.
He was relieved that another person of such ilk was here, other than him.
Rem: [I don’t think this is the type of situation where you can simply say he is a good person.]
In opposition to Subaru who affirmed himself to Flop’s attitude, Rem quietly revealed her strong criticisms.
Surprised at the bite of her words, Subaru unconsciously stared at Rem. Though difficult to meet face-to-face with, and despite his wish to avoid it, in his field of vision, Rem stared straight at Subaru.
Without dropping her gaze, she continued on.
Rem: [He doesn’t want to hurt others with his knowledge. I understand those feelings. But… if you think about the overall situation, him included, how will he account for the casualties that will arise because he didn’t share his knowledge. Couldn’t you say that would be hurting others with knowledge as well?]
Subaru: [That’s just an argument for argument’s sake. Trying to blame Flop for all the casualties brought about because he doesn’t talk, that’s just a false accusation.]
Rem: [That may be right. But, I do not think it’s realistic to be constantly running away.]
Abel had declared that this was the Land of Wolves. And against that, Flop had proclaimed that sheep would run.
That was a fairytale, was what Rem pessimistically――No, realistically thought, and said. She was yet another person who had stepped foot into Guaral. The tenacity and relentlessness of the Imperial Soldiers seeped deep into her bones.
Could they shake off that oppressive pursuit again?
Under determined opposition and not vague malicious intent, could Flop, with Medium, keep running to the ends of the world?
And, could Subaru’s group, who shared the same fate as them, be able to――.
Subaru: [Hang, hang on Rem. What you’re saying is crazy. You also said before that you didn’t want there to be a battle. But, the way you’re saying it now…]
Subaru: [It’s like you’ve accepted that we have to fight.]
His throat trembled. Subaru was unable to get his words out properly.
But, just like how it was said that the eyes could say more than the mouth, in Subaru and Rem’s precarious conversation, it was not just their words that spelled out their feelings. Their gazes did too.
The grim resolve that coloured her eyes was the same as the one when she had defended Flop against Abel. That was what Subaru thought.
Subaru: [… It hurts that I can’t understand you.]
Seeing that attitude of hers on display, Subaru spit out the honest feelings floating in his heart.
She had criticised Flop for following Subaru’s beliefs, but she regarded Subaru with the same eyes she used when defending Flop, when the latter was laying out his beliefs.
She had defended Subaru from Abel but she had not unpacked at the inn in Guaral. The interactions between the awakened Rem and Subaru were always inconsistent and one-way.
From the bottom of his heart, he was happy that she had woken up.
The sadness that assaulted him due to her memories not returning, he believed that they could find a way to solve that problem.
Nevertheless, in the Empire, where there was nobody he could trust from the bottom of his heart, from where he had to bring Rem back to Emilia and the others, her uncooperative attitude was like a knife piercing through his leg.
Every time that would happen, he would be on the verge of hunching over in pain.
Subaru: [… You didn’t unpack at the inn in Guaral, right? Thanks to that, we reduced the time needed to escape, but I always thought it was weird.]
Rem: [That was…]
Subaru: [The average person, after reaching an inn, will relax and settle down or start unpacking their luggage. At least, that’s what I think. Of course, it’s always possible that you aren’t that sort of person. But…]
He did not want to finish the rest of that sentence.
If he could continue averting his eyes he would, but now that he felt he could not avoid questioning Rem on her inexplicable attitude, he could not continue averting his eyes.
That was why――,
Subaru: [But, you tried to run away from me again, didn’t you?]
Rem’s silence was piercing. Subaru felt the blood coursing through his body.
However, a scab already peeled had no use. Letting the blood flow, heeding no mind to the exposed wound, he could only peel it off. Enduring the pain.
Subaru: [If… If you can’t believe me, that’s fine. It’s painful, but I get it. You don’t have any memories and for you, my smell reeks like that of someone unforgivable. Also I don’t have anything to prove that you can trust me. I understand why you can’t believe me and want to distance yourself from me.]
Subaru: [But, the people waiting for you… The people who hold you dear in their hearts, are real. If you don’t like me, you don’t have to talk to me. I’ll endure it if you bat my hands away. But, please don’t try to leave.]
Subaru: [I’m begging you, so, please… Please don’t shut me out from your life.]
His begging voice was shaking, his eyes were on the verge of tears.
Whether those droplets of tears that gradually appeared were the result of his self-pity, or of his petition to Rem, was unknown even to himself.
Truly, he was just being exceedingly pathetic. It was so absurd it made him laugh.
Even if he was not given up on, it would not be surprising were he to be abandoned because of his begging right now.
――He continued to expose his hopeless and pitiful self in front of Rem.
It was a sight he would definitely not show to Emilia, Beatrice or his other friends.
At least, Subaru intentionally strived to not show it to his friends. Never mind if he was able to actually achieve that, that was what he had done now.
Because he had decided to show his weakness only in front of Rem.
However, that did not mean that he wanted Rem, amnesiac, with no one to rely on, alone in another country, to shoulder the heavy weight that was Natsuki Subaru. That was not at all what he desired.
Hearing Subaru’s shameful begging, Rem would not say a word in return.
Nonetheless, Subaru did not avert his blurry, tear-filled gaze from her. Neither did she avert her gaze from Subaru.
A brief silence enveloped the space between them.
Rem: [I was not trying to abandon you.]
Rem said awkwardly, choosing her words carefully.
That was an emotion Rem had yet to show Subaru. Not even once.
She spoke to the person she should be wary of, with consideration and care. She spoke devoid of a wish to hurt his feelings.
Her words did not sound like she was speaking desperately and without thinking. Her tone made him believe that. Or it could be that that was also Subaru’s hope speaking for him.
Subaru: [Are you…]
Relying on that thin ray of hope, the thread of hope he should not be relying on, Subaru searched for the right words.
What was Rem thinking? What did she wish for? What did she believe in to put those words to her mouth?
Not even knowing if he should be informed of the answers to those questions, Subaru just wanted to hear her voice more, and tried to continue his sentence.
???: [Aaaa, uuuu!!]
Faster than he could continue, a force jumped at him around his waist, and Subaru’s body blurred as it was launched to the side.
Unable to support his body at all, Subaru was blown away, sent sprawling on top of the hill. The atmosphere from before being ripped to shreds, Subaru’s head spun as he opened his eyes wide to try and make sense of the situation.
???: [Lou! Don’t sit on top of Suu! That’s bad! Uu tried to stop her. Lou was the one who did it.]
Subaru: [U-Utakata…? Meaning, this is…]
The one who ran over with an almost comical pitter-patter footstep, was a slightly flush olive-skinned Utakata. And, the one who was getting her sleeve pulled by Utakata, sitting atop Subaru’s chest, was the young girl who bundled her long, golden hair behind her head――,
Rem: [Louis-chan, please come down. That person’s going to get squished.]
Overwriting her joyful and smiley face with a question mark, the one who craned her neck towards Rem’s words was Louis.
Resting her bottom on Subaru’s chest, Louis patted Subaru’s cheeks without a care in the world. It was, however, her carefreeness that got on Subaru’s nerves in the first place.
Subaru: [We’re in the middle of an important conversation. Get off now.]
Subaru: [Don’t aaa me. Utakata, please?]
Utakata: [I’ll listen cause Suu asked for it. Uu is a good wife and a good mother.]
Did she understand what that meant? In any case, Utakata pulled Louis’ arm to get her off Subaru’s chest. The pressure on him disappearing, Subaru raised his body up on the spot.
Even then, an unsatisfied-looking Louis entered his immediate field of view, and Subaru became annoyed.
Subaru: [In the end, there hasn’t been an answer as to what you are.]
Sin Archbishop, the evil being, “Gluttony”, Louis Arneb.
If he were to pick some choice words to decorate the blonde girl in front of him with, he could think of many foul and uncomplimentary remarks. However, even if all those words were what correctly described her before, her current self did not match up with that.
That evil girl did not save Subaru, listen to him, or carelessly laugh towards him.
Louis craned her neck. Her actions until now flashed in his mind.
Saving him when Rem had been choking him. She had cried out and faced the many predicaments Subaru had been through, alongside him. Even the most recent one, being Todd and his axe.
The memory of her receiving Todd’s elbow hit and bleeding from the nose was still fresh in his mind.
Her face had no sign of the previous injury, and she acted as if that event had no negative bearing on her at all. That was infuriating in a way, but――,
Beckoned, Louis quickly changed her expression into a happy one and ran over to Rem’s side.
As if she had learned how to jump on the cane-ridden Rem, Louis jumped on Rem with not too much force. Rem caught Louis and gave her head some soft pats.
She had caught the Sin Archbishop who was one of the reasons for her current state. She had caught one part of them, Louis Arneb.
Rem: [Those eyes of yours…]
Rem: [The eyes with which you look at this child. It puzzles me too. This child, she’s so attached to you, and yet you…]
Rem uttered while hugging Louis‘ small body. Subaru fell silent.
Was that the continuation of her interrupted words from before? The Rem who did not unpack at Guaral, the continuation of that would shine a light on the rest of the truth.
However, despite waiting, Rem did not say another word beyond that. She only wrapped the beaming Louis into her chest.
Subaru: [… What do you want me to do?]
Looking over at Rem, Subaru finally chose to use conclusive words.
It might have been an unfair method to make Rem give him an answer. However, if Rem were to brush aside all of Subaru’s chosen words and actions, this was the only option left.
What did Rem wish for, and what did she want him to do? He had to ask her directly.
On top of that, if the answer she brought out was something Subaru could not achieve for her, then it would be that time for sure that their relationship might become unsalvageable. Knowing that, Subaru asked her fearfully.
She held her breath for a moment against Subaru’s question, and,
Rem: [… I do not want it to turn into a battle.]
Subaru could accept that too. In reality, when the Imperial Army’s camp had been reduced to ashes, she thought that Subaru had spearheaded that attack and so flared up at him with a strong, threatening attitude.
Rem did not wish for a war. She did not favour it. That was no mistake.
That was why he understood that her opinion had not changed.
However, just when Subaru was convinced of this fact, she added on that.
Rem: [But I don’t think we can keep running forever. Flop-san’s words are not realistic. And…]
Subaru: [You can’t agree with Abel’s opinion.]
Quietly nodding, Rem agreed with Subaru’s question.
Her timid agreement, it was the sign that she held the awareness that the words she spoke were outrageous. And, of course they were.
She agreed with Flop’s stance on not wanting to fight, she also agreed with Abel on his stance that they had no choice but to fight. That was an ideology that could be said to be an incarnation of opportunism.
In all honesty, even Subaru thought how good it would be if a fence-sitter opinion like that worked out.
Fighting was not desired. But fighting was an inevitable outcome.
They did not want to take lives. Yet, they were at the forefront of a fight where taking lives was inevitable.
They must confront a dichotomy that involves lives.
Rem: [Could you…]
Making a bitter face, Subaru agreed with Rem’s contradictory thinking. However, to that anguishing Subaru, Rem flicked her gaze towards him.
Holding Louis’ head to her chest, she directed her helpless-looking light blue eyes towards Subaru.
Subaru held his breath. As if she quietly hardened her resolve she――,
Rem: [――Could you do something about this?]
She asked as if she were clinging onto him for an answer.
The moment he received that question, Subaru froze as if struck by lightning.
It was… That was a completely… A completely unreasonable question.
Compared to Subaru, who thought himself to be unfair and cowardly, this question was far, far worse.
The want to not fight, the knowledge that there was no choice but to fight. A third answer that was neither of those choices. ――That was what Rem wished from Subaru.
Forgetting everything and anything, her trust and affection for Subaru had been lost. She also held caution and disgust because of the foul smell that surrounded Subaru. And yet, why had she asked that of Subaru.
Why did Rem look at Subaru with eyes that looked like she was holding onto him.
That extremely one-sided, even selfish question started a fire in Natsuki Subaru.
Even if he were to get angry, curse her out loudly and denounce her naiveness now, he would no doubt be forgiven.
That was how selfish the option Rem chose was.
However, what grew in Subaru at that moment was a sense of duty that arose from the very bottom of his soul.
He must fight.
He must resist.
He knew that he must break open the present as it was now.
Evading combat, the person stopping himself from revealing his information. Flop O’Connell.
Preparing himself from the unavoidable battle, the person who would win his survival. Vincent Abellux.
In the situation they were in now, the inevitable pathways that these two held.
The person that must find an answer; a pathway that was different from these two answers. Natsuki Subaru.
Why was that? That was because――,
Subaru: [――I’m the hero that Rem believed in.]
And also because he was the man that kept on fighting in this other world using only his unwillingness to give up as a weapon.
It was not just his philosophy, the philosophy that did not function just because he crossed borders, that let Natsuki Subaru keep walking until today. That was what he believed.
Meeting Emilia, saved by her, the days spent running to save her.
Clutching Beatrice’s hand, bringing her out of the Forbidden Library, his promise to be together with her.
Saving Rem, being saved by her, loved by her and deciding that he would answer her faith and love.
――Natsuki Subaru’s blood boiled as he strived to change this current, constrained situation.
Something, anything, was there nothing at all?
The days spent in the Kingdom of Lugunica, the days spent since being blasted into the Vollachian Empire, the people he had met, the enemies he had faced, the people who stood next to him, the people who stood opposite him. All of them became fuel.
Think, concentrate, imagine, grasp all the possible possibilities.
In this world, where anyone and everyone was more successful than him, the option that was left for Natsuki Subaru was only one. ――His scrappy lifestyle and shrewdness.
Then, then, then, then――.
Hit by his uselessness, ruled over by a sense of loss, and with nothing else to do, Subaru had left the meeting area.
In that Subaru, in that Subaru’s mind, a thought appeared with a flash.
Reeling in that clownish possibility, Subaru seriously considered if he could convert this thought into an actual plan.
Towards the silent Subaru, Rem’s eyes quietly stared.
Putting a hand on Louis, who looked like she was about to cause a commotion and holding Utakata back, her head tilted, so that she would not leak any words out, she stared at Subaru.
Despite the fact she was not supposed to possess any memories, she stared at him with the eyes she had when she did.
As if she believed that Natsuki Subaru could reach the answer that others could not reach.
Holding a hand on his chin, Rem straightened herself at Subaru’s call.
There was no answer. She somehow understood that he did not want one.
However, not noticing her reaction, Subaru quietly held his breath and continued.
Subaru: [What would I do if it were up to me? I found the answer.]
Lumbering, advancing with strong steps on the hard ground, the doors to the meeting area were pushed open.
Looking at the newly-appeared Subaru, the man donning a oni mask flared his nose in dissatisfaction. His attitude conveyed that he had been uncalled for.
Abel: [What is it, Natsuki Subaru? A person like you, one who cannot provide a constructive opinion, has no role for an appearance.]
He had actually been told in reality that he was not called for, and yet, Subaru’s legs did not stop.
Even if he had forgiven Flop’s disrespect, Abel would most likely not forgive Subaru for his, as Subaru held no reverence for him. Feeling the gazes of the faces still remaining in the meeting area, Subaru pressed his legs straight forward.
Standing right next to Abel, looking down at his oni mask up close,
Subaru: [Any developments? You arrogant shit.]
Extending his hand, Subaru forcefully peeled the oni mask off Abel’s face.
Mizelda and the other Shudraqians widened their eyes in surprise at his unhesitant action. It went without saying, but Flop too was shocked, laying his eyes upon Abel’s true face for the first time.
However, the others’ actions did not enter his eyes.
Towards Subaru’s question, Abel shifted his demonic face into a cruel expression that would run a chill up anyone’s spine. He shook his head curtly, saying “No,”
Abel: [Negotiations are progressing roughly. Contrary to expectations, this merchant is hard to crack.]
Subaru: [Is that so. Then, since you’re so terrible at being persuasive, I’ll persuade him for you.]
Abel furrowed his nicely-shaped eyebrows together. Seeing his face, Subaru looked down at Abel with satisfaction.
Next, Subaru turned to face Flop.
Because a conclusion had not been made, Flop was in the middle of arguing with the presumed Emperor head on. Taken aback by the difference in Subaru’s expression and attitude, Flop called over to Subaru, saying “Mister?”.
Then, towards the two that held differently shaped doubts, Subaru declared.
The contents of that declaration were――,
Subaru: [――I have a plan for the bloodless fall of Guaral. If we can fight without any bloodshed, then the two of you can agree on a plan together, don’t you think?]